Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (File)

The Trump Administration hid intelligence from legislators that Saudi Arabia is building up its ballistic missile program with China’s assistance.

“Three sources with direct knowledge of the matter” said Democratic representatives discovered the Saudi escalation outside “regular US Government channels”.

The intelligence assesses that Riyadh has expanded both its missile infrastructure and technology through purchases from Beijing.

Saudi Arabia is barred from purchasing ballistic missiles from the US under the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal, multi-country agreement banning the sale of rockets capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.

Satellite imagery, reported in January, indicated the Saudis have constructed a ballistic missile factory, with technology appearing to match that produced by the Chinese. A May 14 image shows further activity.

The Saudi Embassy in the US did not comment on the report. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Beijing and Saudi Arabia are “comprehensive strategic partners” who maintain friendly cooperation in all areas, including in the area of arms sales”.

The Foreign Ministry assured, “Such cooperation does not violate any international laws, nor does it involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

A State Department official said Saudi Arabia is still a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, accepting the obligation never to acquire nuclear weapons. He repeated the US commitment to “the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems”.

Renewed Administration-Congress Clash Over Saudi?

The issue could heighten a rift between the Administration and Congress over how to deal with the Saudis.

Donald Trump and his close advisors consider Riyadh an essential ally in the confrontation with Iran. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the day-to-day authority in Riyadh’s policy and operations, and Trump has been wooed by lavish Saudi ceremonies and praise, including his May 2017 trip to the Kingdom.

But many legislators have called for action against Saudi Arabia over the October 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with US intelligence agencies assessing that the Crown Prince ordered the killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Measures have been introduced to end US support for the Saudi-led intervention since 2015 in Yemen’s civil war, in which tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and millions threatened by shortages of food, medicine, and essential supplies. But Trump vetoed a resolution in April, and there have not been enough votes to override his objection.

Hiding from Congress?

The Senate Intelligence Committee now has access to the Saudi intelligence but has not had a specific briefing. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee only learned about the missile build-up when it was discovered by Democratic staff. One was told by a foreign counterpart, during a trip of the Middle East, of the development.

When staff brought the new information to the Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez, he immediately obtained a classified, senators-only briefing on April 9.

The next day after the classified briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified publicly before the committee about the State Department budget. Menendez chided Pompeo for the failure to share classified information until the matter was brought to the administration: “That’s simply unacceptable….[The State Department]”needs to do a better job of engaging with us, briefing us and responding to our requests.”

Later in the hearing, three other Democratic senators cited public reports related to Saudi desires for ballistic missiles.

Pompeo said the Administration preferred that Saudi Arabia buy US technology:

There’ve been those who’ve urged the United States to take a different posture with respect to Saudi Arabia, not to sell them technology. I think you see the risks that are created. It would be better if the United States was involved in those transactions than if China was.

The Secretary of State said it is still US policy to oppose proliferation of ballistic missile technology in the Middle East, but blamed Tehran for “most of the folks who are working to build out missile systems”.

“Others are doing what they need to do to create a deterrence tool for themselves,” he said. “It’s just a fact.”